It’s a concept we’ve talked about on the blog here already, but one that I wanted to explore again after the controversial death of beloved Grey’s Anatomy character, Dr. Derek Shepherd.
For those of you who don’t watch the show, Derek and his wife Meredith have been the main characters of the show for the past eleven years, which is saying something because for all intents and purposes, it is an ensemble cast show. And yet, their love story has always been pretty integral to the story from the very beginning. We open with them meeting, and we grew to really care about their up and down, will they or won’t they relationship.
Well, they did, finally. They got married, adopted one kid and had another, and even after they found themselves arguing a lot this season (and Derek almost cheating, well he did kiss someone but then ran away as quickly as possible), they somehow managed to find their way back to each other and were really, really happy.
This is when I (and anyone else who watches the show) knew something was going to go terribly wrong. Two episodes later, he was missing. And the very next episode, we found out that he’d died in a hospital of a brain lack following a car accident.
Whew. When I say that episode tore me to pieces, I’m not lying. But I’m also not alone. All over my timeline, I saw folks admitting to deep, ugly tears while watching it. And sure, I think it’s partly because we’d all become invested in the character and also because Shonda Rhimes knows how to tear your heart out with a perfectly timed song, but mostly I think it had everything to do with all of our tendencies towards foreboding joy.
You see, the reason so many of us expected that something was going to go wrong with the character on the show is because we expect for things to go wrong in our own lives when we are too happy. How could the Grey’s Anatomy world be any different, right?
Dr. Brene’ Brown says it better. She says, “Having spent several years studying what it means to feel joyful, I’d argue that joy is probably the most difficult emotion to really feel. Why? Because when we lose the ability or willingness to be vulnerable, joy becomes something we approach with deep foreboding… [and it] can feel like a setup. We wake up in the morning and think, Work is going well. Everyone in the family is healthy. No major crises are happening. The house is still standing. I’m working out and feeling good. Oh, shit. This is bad. This is really bad. Disaster must be lurking right around the corner.”
Essentially, we’re all scared shitless of being too happy.
That’s why it hurt so much watching Derek die the same day he so eloquently professed his love for Meredith. It’s because watching that happen confirmed all our fears of it happening in real life. Not consciously, mind you. But I think it stirred up those latent (and maybe not so latent) fears in all of us.
I get that. For several years after Montana was killed in a carjacking, any time I couldn’t reach a friend, family member, or especially someone I was dating, I would immediately panic and think something had happened to them. I’d give myself 3 hours (much like Meredith gave herself until 5pm) to hear back from them before completely losing it, but I’d be going through every horrible scenario in my mind.
But even after I got over that, foreboding joy found a way to creep into my psyche. I recently dated someone, fell in love with him, and then talked myself out of the relationship. Why? Because when you have foreboding joy, the kind of happiness I had with him only serves to make you so frightened that it will end that the only thing you can do is stop it before something or someone else can take it from you.
It’s that thing that makes newly married folks realize just how mortal we all are now that they’ve vowed to spend the rest of their lives with someone. It’s what makes moms and dads stand over their new babies, because they realize the most random incident could take all that happiness away in an instant. It’s frightening. It’s debilitating. But more than that it’s not living a full life.
Brown gives an example of this in her book, Daring Greatly. “A man in his early sixties told me, ‘I used to think the best way to go through life was to expect the worst. That way, if it happened, you were prepared, and if it didn’t happen, you were pleasantly surprised. Then I was in a car accident and my wife was killed. Needless to say, expecting the worst didn’t prepare me at all. And worse, I still grieve for all of those wonderful moments we shared and that I didn’t fully enjoy’… [this] story illustrates how the concept of foreboding joy as a method of minimizing vulnerability is best understood as a continuum that runs from ‘rehearsing tragedy’ to what I call ‘perpetual disappointment.'”
She goes on to say, “What the perpetual disappointment folks described is this: ‘It’s easier to love disappointed than it is to feel disappointed. It feels more vulnerable to dip in and out of disappointment than to just set up camp there. You sacrifice joy, but you suffer less pain… [but] once we make the connection between vulnerability and joy, the answer is pretty straightforward: we’re trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt. We don’t want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment.”
Thing is though, we don’t actually stop the pain, even when we’re not letting ourselves enjoy the joy. This is exactly what happened with many of us who watch the show. I knew something was going to happen to Derek. I felt it from the moment I saw them being too happy, and guess what? That stopped me from just enjoying that moment, because the whole time I kept saying, “something bad is going to happen. He’s about to die.” And yet, when he died, I still cried. It still hurt. The expectation, the foreboding joy, hadn’t stopped the rush of pain from flooding. Just as it doesn’t stop it in our real lives.
It didn’t stop me from being devastated after I pushed the guy away enough that he left. And it won’t stop any future pain going forward. But that’s the thing about foreboding joy — it wants you to believe it will. It wants you to believe if you control the happiness, you can make it without suffering the pain.
It is wrong.
If that Grey’s Anatomy episode taught us anything (besides the fact that Shonda Rhimes will kill off any character at any time, seriously — it’s like Game of Thrones in a hospital), it taught us that. And I hope those of us who experienced it will look back on those ugly tears and use it to inform us in our actual lives. I hope it will inspire us to embrace the happiness, to lean into the vulnerability that comes with joy, and to not be so worried about what comes after.